THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH RUUD JANSSEN.
4 – unfinished
BY HANS-RUEDI FRICKER
Started on: 5-3-1996
HR : Welcome to this mail-interview. You are the founder of the Mail-interview Project and I think that your own thoughts should be part of this project too. Ofcourse you could do a fictive interview with yourself, but in that case I would miss the dialogical process, therefore I invite you to answer my questions.
First let me ask you your own traditional question at the beginning of an interview. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?
RJ : Thanks for the invitation. Actually already some more people asked me if I “interviewed myself”, and I replied to that question that this is a strange idea. How to ask oneself a question when one knows already the answer?
Yes, that traditional question. The reason why I normally start with the same question in my interview project is that it gives an idea to the readers of the finished interview where to place the interviewed persons. Sometimes it even turns out to be a difficult question to answer. How does one get involved in the network? I invented the name TAM (Travelling Art Mail) in 1980. At that time I was sending out mail to fictive addresses in the hope that they would return to me. Also I mailed letters to my own address to see if the postal office would accept the piece of mails I put in the mailbox. Lots of drawings, colors and also collaged official postal stamps on them. I didn’t know the term “mail art”, and it is quite funny how the words ART and MAIL came together in this TAM-word.
Before 1980 I was already corresponding to all parts of the world. As soon as I learned to write I inherited this activity from my father, who was in contact with all corners of the world, yet in another network, the postal stamps exchanging. I wrote to Japan, East-Germany, Argentina, and all kind of countries I know were very far away.
I like drawing and painting also when I was a child, I even started with oil painting when I was about 15 years old. This early correspondence in the 60’s had nothing to do with art, and after seeing an exhibition about “creative mail” in a local Art Center I started with TAM in 1980. The year I got involved in the mail art network was 1983. I had put a small ad in the local newspaper to see if anybody else was doing this creative mail too, and believe it or not, the reaction came from a journalist who wanted to do an interview with me. I didn’t mind the interview, and the next week the story of my “strange hobby” was on the front-page of the local newspaper, and I got lots of reactions. One of the reactions directed me to Guy Bleus in Belgium, and to my request for more addresses he sent me a huge list. Probably a list of one of his older projects, and from that list I started to write to “interesting names” on the list like Anna Banana, Ben Vautier, Arno Arts, etc. And yes, I got replies and started the learning-process of what mail art is all about.
Question on 16-3-1996
HR : We have been in contact since you invited mail artists to send you their rubber stamp prints. Maybe we started corresponding in 1983. You always answered with an address-list of those who participated to your rubberstamp project. That was great because I was able to see to whom you are corresponding and I saw which artists are using this special art medium (rubber stamps). I never just sent mail to everybody, I was looking for the interesting ones, and your list was a great help. Also your TAM Bulletin with all the new mail art projects was important to many of us. From the beginning I admired you as a collector and as a wonderful mediator and therefore as a real networker. But, I asked to myself often: is Ruud an artist? Today I do not have to answer my own question any longer because the artist is dead.
What were Art and the Artist to you when you entered the network in 1983?
RJ : Well, lots of nice words, and than suddenly this difficult but interesting question. For me the “art-part” in mail art wasn’t that important in the beginning. I was mostly interested in systems, and how communication in reality works. Also I enjoy communication (whether it is talking, writing, etc.) from a child, and to be honest, I even remember that I played “postoffice” with my sister and brother when I was really young (like 6/7 or so). The invention of TAM in 1980, gave me the possibility to mail to firms as well, because the letterhead of TAM looked official enough. The research of the mail system evolved my knowledge of how the postal office works. I even have still some subscriptions from the Dutch KPN (the owner of the postal system in the Netherlands) thanks to the director who helped me with this research. So, in the beginning I was interested in mail (even with a technical approach), communication, and the art of the communication. But I have had always many interests. Drawing & painting was one of them, and as a 15-year old pupil I was already part of an art-group at the highschool. Not just small things, but we even started with oil painting, and lateron did with the group and other pupils our own exhibition. Most of the participants of this small art-group went to Art-College after graduating. I choose differently. I started to study Technical Physics, and lateron even Mathematics. The time I graduated (in 1983) was also the moment I entered the mail art network. But I was already working a lot with mail during my whole life. So, back to your question. Art for me was a hobby at that time. I never had the idea to make a living out of art. What was an artist? At that time I probably thought of an artist as someone wanting to make money through his artworks. But, words aren’t important when it comes to ART. I am gradually making up with the loss of not having followed Art-University. I already followed some art-courses, and am mastering new techniques. Strangely enough I am also not working with Physics or Mathematics too. Gradually I started to learn more about computers, and at this moment I teach informatics. However, most persons than think that a mail artist whi works with computers to make computer-art. And strange enough, that is not the case. Since you are in contact with me for such a long time already, you probably will have noticed how my mail has changed/evolved. I started in 1980 as a 21-year old, and I must say the network has taught me a lot.
Next question on 18-4-1996
HR : Yes I noticed how your mail has evolved during the last ten years. There is a phenomenon that is typically for many contributors of the network. On one side they act as networkers, they build communication systems through open projects like shows, magazines, congresses and they prefer the interactive person to person contact instead of performing in front of an anonym audience. They use different medias, even new ones like video, computers and they use fax machines and the information transport on internet which means that they reflect their own, and all other fellow-beings, role as a sender and creator of our world in opposition to the “consumer and hangerons”.
At the other side, many of those “artists” who act in networks have an old fashion meaning of what art really is and what “artist” means in our society. They want to be painters and they want to make money as painters. Most of them are just horrible painters, without any talent, and it seems that they are not willing to understand what happened in art during the last one hundred years. I am sorry to say, that I never liked your visual (art-) material but I felt that your coming out as a painter, illustrator or graphic artist was very important for you. I see this as a conflict. Flexibility of roles may be typical for a contemporary artist who uses roles and techniques just as a tool for his/her strategies and intentions (as I try to do, sometimes), but what about you?
RJ : I don’t get the essence of this question. It seems you are telling me about you views and ideas, and that you try to fit me into a group. The word “artist” is a difficult one. It means something different to everybody. I have gotten the question before, “are you an artist?”, and considering that I don’t sell my work, seldom exhibit in the official galleries, don’t do much performances and installations, have other interests besides art, I guess I am not the artist as society sees the artist. A word is just a word.
But on the other side I am exploring the possibilities that art and technique offer, and spend the free time I have on art, mail art and writing, but also on science & computers. Networking is a big part of this search. Mail artists send lots of impulses to you and if you are open to them, it sometimes guides the next steps. But I also have my paid job that gives me the luxury of having a steady income. When I look at what society calls “artists”, it is a problem for them if they aren’t able to sell their work. And having to sell work sometimes means making compromises.
I am not that interested if I fit in a certain group or not. I have been studying art-history now for some years, and I found out that the things that “artists” do besides their art normally is also interesting and gives a better view of their life and goals.
You write: “I am sorry to say, that I never liked your visual (art-) material but I felt that your coming out as a painter, illustrator or graphic artist was very important for you”. First, it is funny to read that you never liked my visual (art-) material. I wasn’t aware of sending you ever something of my larger artworks. The mail art someone sends out isn’t the same as the larger works some mail artist produce. Some mail artists don’t produce any larger art. The ones that do, don’t send it to mail artists. I have been often positively surprised by the “other art” some mail artists produce, which I could only see on the occasion of meeting them. You never saw my oil paintings, you probably never saw the coloured versions of my concept-drawings, sometimes transferred into larger multicolored silkscreen works, woodprints, mixed media, paintings. And how could you? I only send the graphics to other artist that are doing graphic techniques too, and want to trade, and only had a few of them in “official” exhibitions. I never send them to mail art exhibitions. All my oil paintings are on my wall, or are gifts to special people in my life. So, funny, you judge my “art” on what I send to you by mail, and that is my “mail art”. For me they are not the same.
Very important for me? I guess so, that it is important for me to have this creative outlet, to be able to put my thoughts in visuals, images, etc. The things that I have made which are important to me are either still here with me, or I gave them to people that are also special to me or when I meet them. The few times that people wanted to buy something from me, I simply refused. Sounds stupid maybe? I rather select the people I give things to, then sell them for money. The way I have arranged my life, I am able to do that. But you questions started a story that has little to do with mail art. Or has it?
Next question on 11-5-1996 (via e-mail)
HR : If you receive works from other networkers, for example an envelope with stamps, rubberstamps, slogans etc. do you just collect the work or do you think of it as a good or bad, interesting or typical piece of Art?
RJ : First part of your question, “….do you just collect the work?”. Well, it depends on what people send me. If someone sends me prints for the TAM Rubberstamps Archive, then sure, I collect. But I also observe what people send me and try to react to their sendings. Mail art for me mostly has to do with communication. Of course I think of mail art I receive as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I get some horrible things sometimes. But I always try to figure out why people sent me something. When I have found that out, then the proces of replying (or sometimes not-replying) begins. Some mail I get I wouldn’t call mail art anymore. Some contacts with networkers have evolved to others stages. Some contacts became correspondents, where the writing of (personal) letters is important. Some contacts evolved into the exchanging of art-works (I do not consider a multicolored silkscreen a piece of mail art since it has little to do with mail. It is art that I happen to mail, the art was not made with the intention to mail).
So I guess basically I think of the mail art I get as good or bad, interesting or typical, as you call it. But this doesn’t mean I only react to ‘good’ things. Sometimes a ‘bad’ piece might trigger me to respond. And of course the interesting piece doesn’t mean I have to react. If I receive a wonderful documentation of a project I can read through it for a long time, but after that I might just put it with the collection and write a small “thank-you” note.
I think again of the word ‘collect’ you used. When you are in mail art for some years you sometimes start to ‘collect’ automatically. But it isn’t the essence of the mail art, it is just a way to file away all the things you get. An example; I never subscribed to mail art magazines when I got informations about them, it isn’t interesting to collect the whole series of publications. I sometimes get the publications eventually when I sent the editor something that I produced, or I occasionally DO order a specific issue when I know it is interesting.
Next question on 8-6-1996
HR : What does rubber stamps say on networking? Is or was the rubber stamp an instrument of the networking discussions? What did they explain and who was the founder. Examples?
RJ : Of course the rubber stamp is a tool, an instrument, used in networking, but if it stimulates the discussion…..not always. The reason a lot of networkers like rubber stamps is because they can print an image quickly in the color of their choice on a piece of paper, an envelope, or anything else. What this says about networking is that rubber stamps save time in printing an image or text, and once you have a rubber stamp it saves money too because printing in color in other ways is expensive. The rubber stamp balances between the completely handmade things and the printed matters. It is a handmade reproduction. In the large collection of prints of rubber stamps I can see quite clearly the difference in the use of rubber stamps by several networkers. Some prints are very well though out, others are done in a rush. Just like the difference you see in any other technique.
In general there are two kinds of rubber stamps. The prefab ones that you can easily buy in a store (well, nowadays in the western world that is. It is still an extreme expensive and difficult thing to get rubber stamps in some of the countries where networkers live!). The second ones are the selfmade ones (ordered at a store or even completely selfmade). The artist is the one who will decide what to do with it. The placing of a stamp print is the art. Some like to make collages with rubber stamps, other use a single print to give a message, there are only few limitations. Some prints show a very special way of using the stamps; others use any kind of rubber they can get their hands on. I myself for instance use silicon rubber sometimes, which I can make myself in any form I wish. To many possibilities to mention in an interview.
Some like to buy lots of rubber stamps to make visuals collages, and especially in the USA this has become big business for the rubber stamp companies. I myself mostly use quite specific rubber stamps. Lots of them bought on my trips to other countries (many in Hagen Germany where I visited most of the “Stempel Mekka’s” ; organized by Wolfgang Hein and Diana Arsenau), but the ones I like the most are the selfmade rubber stamps and the gifts I have gotten from so many networkers. Some are really precious to me, and all the stamps people give or send in to my archive aren’t just stored away. At my desk there are always lying dozens of stamps, and I use most of the stamps on a rotation basis to spread the images and statements into the network.
Well, the two specific parts in your question: “an instrument of the networking discussions?”, I guess so, because in networking all kinds of tools that are quick to use seem to be the favorite. Why quick? Because it saves time and mostly money, and I can see from a lot of mail I get in that it was quickly made…….
“What did they explain and who was the founder. Examples?” Well, Just look at all the stamps that are used on the envelopes you get. I don’t feel like make lists in an interview. About “the founder” I guess you should read the catalog of the exhibition at the Postal Museum in Paris, “L’art du Tampon”, held in 1995. It just depends on what you call the first artistic use of stamps.
Next question on 13-6-1996
HR : When I think of the use of “tools” in society and art I see the context and the content of the “instrument”. Do you think that producers of rubber stamps see and reflect the rubber stamps function as a political instrument? (During World War II at the border of Switserland they stamped a big J in every passport of a person with jidish religion!) And second, how important was the use of the language on rubber stamps. Did the artist turn into a writer or what was the language good for?
RJ : The producers of rubber stamps. You can look at that from two sides. The ones that actually make the rubber stamp are businessman. Even the mail artists that have started a stamp company, they have a business to run, and making money is the main point then. If you consider the designers of the rubber stamp (who then places the order at a shop/factory or just makes/carves it by himself) then he/she is the one who determines if it is a political instrument. I know form my visits to Eastern Europe that the rubber stamp there IS a political stamp. A document that is signed is valid. A rubber stamp for a normal person/artist wasn’t easy or even impossible to get. I remember that in 1991 I used some official stamps, that I got a friend at the local government, to invite a friend from Estonia for a visit. Because of the stamps, there was no problem. Even when I invited her as the director of TAM (as the Tilburg Academy of Mail Art), actually a non-existing academy, but the Dutch Embassy also worked along. Of course in the last years this has changed.
Your question about language. Communication can be done in many ways. Language is just one of the tools for communication. I don’t see how the language on a rubber stamp turns an artist into a writer. The thinking of a text and putting it on paper is being a writer. Making a stamp out of it, or buying stamps with text is another thing. The rubber stamp is just an instrument for cheap reproduction and has some other nice uses; it is quick, you can change colors of ink, etc. We both know these things.
Next question on 24-6-1996
HR : At the moment, interviewing your partners, you are using the language as an instrument of your networking activities. What are your experiences?
RJ : First you must understand that I not only interview “my partners” as you say it. Of course I interview mail artists that I am in contact with for lots of years, but others can also advise me to interview someone other. This is how I got in contact for the first time with people like Dick Higgins, Ken Friedman, E.F. Higgins-III and other mail artists from the early days. I wasn’t in contact with them before I invited them for the interview.
The experiences could be a long story, but I will keep it short and get the some basic experiences without mentioning specific names of people I interviewed. It is funny to see how some mail artists grab the opportunity to present themselves as an important mail artists, mention all their friends in mail and things they have done. In the interviews I try to let the persons talk about themselves in the way they want to, so that gives the best view of whom the person is all about.
There are also the mail artists that react in a visual way. A typical example in of course Ray Johnson. He took the words on the invitation “choose any length you want for the answer” quite symbolic and indicated the number of inches of his answer. Other mail artists like Robert Rocola and Ko de Jonge also replied in a visual way, but these interviews aren’t published yet as I write this. Most interviewed mail artists take the project quite seriously though, and reply in words.
The problem that comes with words is that not everybody speaks the same language. I conduct the interviews in English (or some also in German language). The published result is obviously in English or visual language since that is the international language used in mail art. The better control an interviewed (mail-) artist has over the English language, the better he can express him/herself. But when the English sometime looks like ‘broken English’ I still print it mostly the same as the answer arrived. I don’t like to censor or edit too much. The answer is best-left authentical so others can see how the communication went. The whole mail interview project has to do with this communication. The way we express ourself and the means we choose. The Internet seems to be the fastest way to proceed with the interview, but documenting things and keeping track of the interview seems to be a problem for some. I am lucky to be quite skilled in dataprocessing, and working with large amounts of data. Keeping 25 interviews going simultaneously has proven to be a very time-absorbing job, but it has been the best learning-process for me I ever had.
(After a silence I asked H.R. if he wanted to continue the interview. The next question came by surprise through the e-mail)
next question on 7-5-1997 (e-mail)
HR : Dear Ruud, yes I would like to continue interviewing you. From now on I can do it by E-mail. Question from HRF to Ruud Janssen. Are you glad? from now on you won’t need a waste paper basket for my mail. No envelopes, no stamp sheets, no stickers, no pins and no aluminium signs anymore.
RJ : No, I am not glad. I like paper, postage stamps, and all materials I can send. The bits are just bits and don’t always get the message accross. I have been working a lot with computers, but they haven’t replaced everything as you might have noticed.
next question on 16-5-1997
(The next question arrived on paper. It was the printout of an e-mail which was sent to a wrong e-mail address of TAM).
HR : Do not worry…. it was more or less ironical. At the other side, I like breaking brifges behind me (sometimes). That’s the reason why I like thinking on art and artists without all those old fashion art techniques. May be you are right “the computers haven’t replaced everything” but what are they good for? Isn’t it a great chance for art and artists to discover new fields and duties? Making art means making interventions. Just on paper? I don’t think so. What would happen if artists could use computers and virtual strategies like Internet only?
(the answer I sent via e-mail and snail-mail on 19-5-1997)
RJ : The computers are already with us for lots of years. Already in 1987 I used them for communication, but these methods for communication weren’t easy for the non-technical people. Since 1994 the Internet has made electronic communication easy for everybody, provided one is rich enough to buy the equipement and pay for the phone-costs and provider. It is still a luxury communication-form, but when you overcome the first costs it becomes a very cheap way of communicating. Because of my profession (I earn my money teaching Informatics nowadays) I do follow these developments intensively, and I see how the electronic communication will be integrated more and more in our daily life. Of course there is a role of an artist there, to show what these changes mean for us. Artists choose however which tools they want to use in theor art, and for me the computer has never overtaken the ‘traditional art’ I like to do. For me this computer-stuff isn’t all that new. Next year it will be the 20th year I am working with those machines. Longer then I am doing mail art. What I miss in computers is normally the personal touch. The handwriting, the colors, the structures of letters, the smell of paper, and the things I can hold in my hand. What artists surely will do is bring this personal touch into the computer. I know lots of artists who are working with computers (also more then a decade ago). That electronic communication is open to everybody is still a farce. My first e-mail from Africa came from Ayah Okwabi (Ghane), but only because he was lucky enough to follow a course in Sweden, from where he could send the e-mail. Mail art is still open for everybody (one stamp is the barrier). E-mail depends on access and the location one lives. The electronic communication I have is mostly with the fortunate group that doesn’t always realize how fortunate they are.
next question on 9-12-1997 (via e-mail)
(Hans-Ruedi Fricker is thinking of building his own site with in it lots of details about his activities. That undertaking triggers the next question which he sends to me by e-mail at the end of a personal message to me)
HR : What do you think about a virtual cementary for those networkers who spent a lot of energy to build a virtual reality who will have influences to our reality too ?
(Due to a short break in the interviews and two trips abroad I only could answer this question beginning of March 1998)
RJ : It is a complex question Hans-Ruedi! We live in a real world and the persons who build these virtual realities also live in real realities, which influence them and trigger them to build these virtual realities. The web site I have created I wouldn’t call a virtual reality. It is just a digital documentation of some of my activities that I place on the web to show others what I am doing. Virtual realities (in computer-terms) are areas where people can actually move in, but don’t really exist. Documenting a virtual reality is impossible since every person who would enter the virtual reality will experience something different.
You speak of a virtual cementary, but when I hear the word cemetary I think of a place where nothing much changes and something is resting there for a very long time. The Word Wide Web isn’t like that at all. The pages online change all of the time. My web site is updated every week or so, and at the moment I even keep a kind of digital diary online with links to other things I find on the web. I don’t consider these informations to be important enough to save as a ‘digital cementary’. Once I have had enough I can just erase the complete files. I document the things I do in the old-fashioned manners. I make printouts, and even photos of computer-screens. The World Wide Web is a tool. The digital information if difficult to ducument. Which fase should one save in a cementary? Things are constantly changing. Also there is the costfactor. Putting things online isn’t free of charge most of the time. I use the free accesses I can get, but I realize that one day it will change and the digital information will be gone. The idea is to share it with others, and if others want to save parts of it, that is o.k. Lots of people printout the things they want to save because they know that in a few years that digital information might have vanished.
If someone spends a lot of time on their vrtual reality, it means that hopefully a lot of people will be able to see it. The visitors are indeed a select group. To give you an example of my site: I analysed (thanks to NEDstats) the pages I have put online in the last 4 months:
51% of the visitors came from Europe.
40% came from North America ,
1,2% came from Middle- and South- America.
0,4% came from Australia.
0,3% came from Azia and another
0,3% from Africa.
6,8% was unknown.
I have spent 2 and a half-year building my site now. Is the site my cemetary? I don’t like to think so. It is a living thing. Once I am dead the site will vanish as well since the organisations that keep them online expect a working e-mail address for the connection. Once they send you an e-mail that bounces, the site is removed. This happened to me once when I was using a school-account that was ended. The site that was connected to the e-mail address was gone. Saving it on disk and call that the cementary would also be a bit folish. Nobody could access this disk. Even when I would ‘publish’ the disk like a book, it wouldn’t be the same as the online files. And online files are a living thing. If they aren’t maintained the files become worthless. Too many sites have grown into that direction. The links they have and the informations they offer are outdated. It is a bit like mail art. When the mail art piece is archived it is no longer a piece of mail art, but an artifact ready to be destroyed or framed or archived or whatever. Archiving digital files is neccesary, of course. But I have lots of diskettes lying around here that I probably won’t be reading again. Some I actually can’t read anymore (the 5,25 inch diskettes)
I guess I am not that fond of cementaries, not even the digital ones. Once you call something a cementary it becomes static. And talking about the real cementaries. You are not supposed to build your own are you. The people who keep on living will decide what is important enough what to save. If what I put online is interesting enough for others they will save it (printed form or on diskettes). I know of lots of people who have printed out the texts and thoughts I have put online. They form the cementary. I myself only document the things I do so I know from where I can go further. Life itself means evolving, not preparing your own cementary. The portfolio I keep here in Tilburg is a printout of all the current files that are online. The actually web site is what counts, and only is functional when it lives and evolves. Others will save only important things. It is not my task to decide what is important.
(The interview was never continued, and on 10-12-2001 I decided to end all running interviews and to put the results online).